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When it all goes wrong: Ten steps for coping with disappointment in sport

In amongst all the success, there were some heart-breaking moments for Team GB during the Olympics: Tom Daley failing to make the 10 metre platform diving final having smashed it in the preliminaries, Adam Gemili missing out on a bronze in the 200m on the track by 3 thousandths of a second. Most painful of all was Lutalo Muhammad losing the gold medal in the -80kg Taekwondo in the final second of the fight. His interview in the aftermath was one of the most moving moments of the games, and also demonstrated how devastating it can be to come so close to your goals and fall short.

Of course we all face disappointments in life. But in sport – and especially Olympic sport - there are factors that make these disappointments harder to take. Olympians have to wait four long years to put right what went wrong, and along with that endure four years of gruelling training with no guarantee of a better result next time, or of even making the team.

The best way to deal with disappointment is to create the right conditions in your life before disappointment occurs so that you are ready when it does. This means having balance in your life. When you are focused exclusively on one outcome, failure to achieve it can be devastating. But within the context of a life in which you find fulfilment from various avenues (relationships, friends and family, other interests, making a contribution outside of sport etc.) then as devastating as disappointment is, it will not be such a threat to your sense of self and purpose.

This is easy to say, but of course sporting culture does not support this. In an era of high professionalism, elite sport often really is your life, and needs to be for the standard to be reached. The work of an elite sports person is not contained within a 40 hour week, but is a 24/7 lifestyle, impacting every decision around diet, how you socialise, when you sleep etc. Furthermore, sporting success and the narratives around it tend to focus on ‘winning is everything’ with an expectation of great personal sacrifice. So given that, how can a sports person manage disappointment when achieving that goal really does mean everything?


ONE: ACCEPT. You cannot avoid feeling deep disappointment and agony. This is natural and inevitable. The issue is to not get stuck in the 'if onlys'….acceptance means allowing yourself to feel as rubbish as you feel and not try to shut it out by disconnecting or using alcohol or whatever ways you have to stop feelings. Feelings that are suppressed have ways of finding an outlet somewhere. Better to feel what you feel and use that feeling constructively.

TWO: GET SUPPORT. Both Adam Gemili and Lutalo Muhammad spoke in interviews about the comfort they had received through the support of others following their disappointments. It can be tempting to act like it's fine and withdraw into yourself, but expressing how upset you are allows others to know what you need from them. Sports counselling or psychotherapy could help if you struggle to ask for support or show vulnerability, or if you do not have a support network around you who are able to be there for you in such moments.

THREE: SUPPORT YOURSELF. Step two is a form of supporting yourself through reaching out to others at a time when it is very difficult to maintain positive feelings. But ultimately, you will need to be your own best friend in the tough times. Supporting yourself is different from denying or trying to block out your feelings. Nor is it about relentless positive thinking in a way that doesn't acknowledge the devastation of what you've missed out on. Instead it's about acknowledging how you feel AND also maintaining hope for the future, good feelings about yourself and avoiding beating yourself up. This is so hard in those first moments, especially if you’re not practised in being kind to yourself. That’s why it’s good to allow others to step in as a bridge until you can offer yourself that kind of support. It also means that you need to make sure you are in the habit of being nurturing to yourself. If this is not something you are used to doing in the good times, you will find it incredibly difficult in the bad times.

FOUR: TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. Maybe not straight away, but when the intensity of the disappointment has faded somewhat, it's time to take some responsibility for your choices. This is not about giving yourself a hard time. This is instead about supporting yourself through the inevitable ups and downs of a career in sport - the career you have chosen. As an elite athlete, you have to hold the tension between the possibility of never achieving what you want and the belief that you will get it. The fact is you have chosen a career path that is filled with risk and with it, the possibility of great highs and great lows. This is the nature of sport and this is what you have signed up to. The fact you have made this choice and are able to live with this degree of risk and uncertainty shows you have some fight in you. You will need to harness this aspect of your self identity to move forward.

FIVE: FIND THE HIGHER PURPOSE. Your stated goal might be to win an Olympic medal, let’s say, but it's important to know why you want that. To find out, ask yourself: what does it mean if I win that medal? What does it do for me? Maybe it means you that you’ve achieved your potential. Keep asking the question. So if you have achieved your potential, what does that do for you? And so on. Keep going until you have found the highest positive intention (as they say in NLP). Perhaps achieving your potential means you have made people proud. If they are proud it means you’ve made a useful contribution to the world and your life has meaning. Then you have a clue that your ultimate goal is around having meaning through contribution. Find other ways to express your contribution so that it doesn’t hinge on this one thing. The idea is that if you don't get what you want, you are dealing with disappointment only, rather than a wholesale sense of worthlessness and loss of meaning.

SIX: BROADEN YOUR IDENTITY. Research shows that when you have a singular sporting identity, there is a much greater chance of falling apart when things go wrong. Instead, cultivate a broader sense of self through understanding yourself outside of your sport. Even if you don’t have time to do much else outside of sport, you can still work on valuing yourself as a person and your personal characteristics and qualities, so that your accomplishments in sport are not your only avenue for self worth. Think of five non sport related skills, accomplishments or qualities as a starting point.

SEVEN: MOVE THE GOAL POSTS. This isn't about changing the goal as much as broadening the goal and shifting your perspective towards relishing the whole experience of a sporting career rather than being exclusively focused on a particular outcome. There needs to be some element of reward in the journey. Along the way, this means noticing after a training session what you feel good about, so that the sense of accomplishment is ongoing and not limited to times of competition. In this perspective, one of your goals needs to be a commitment to finding the learning and growth at all times, even in disappointment. Knowing that you have come to terms with a devastating loss builds huge resilience and will contribute to reducing your fear of failure, freeing you up to take risks knowing you can live with what happens next. Ask yourself: How can I use this to become a better version of me (in sport and in life)? How can I learn from this? Getting through something difficult, living with it, is an act of personal growth that you can feel proud of.

EIGHT: REWRITE THE STORY. You may have had in mind a story with a final chapter in which you win an Olympic medal and all your dreams come true. But you are not in the final chapter! Even if you are in the final chapter in terms of retirement etc, you are not in the final chapter of your life. Overcoming great disappointment and using it constructively can become part of your story. You can support yourself by looking at the huge number of stories of sporting disappointment en route to success that you can find in the lives of just about everyone who has achieved anything.

NINE: LET GO OF RESPONSIBILITY FOR OTHERS. You may have issues of shame, or a feeling of letting others down who have supported you. Those who are involved in sport professionally or as fans are caught in the exact same drama as you in terms of the deep highs and lows and uncertainty and have to accept that. In fact, that's what makes it so exciting. Much as we might want our team to win all the time, in truth, if they did, we would miss the excitement and roller-coaster of emotion that goes with the ups and downs. Ultimately, you are not responsible for anyone else's hopes and dreams. That can be hard, especially in relation to people closest to you who may have also offered huge levels of support and sacrifice of their own. Regardless, this remains their own choice. Accepting this and letting go of responsibility for other people can be particularly difficult if this is a feature of your character generally. If you are someone who might be commonly described as a 'people pleaser' or whose self-esteem is highly reliant upon approval from others, this can be very challenging. Sports psychotherapy can help with this, in looking at the ways in which you take responsibility for others’ feelings not just in sport, but in life.

TEN: GET SOME PERSPECTIVE. If all else fails, get perspective. No-one died. It's only sport. You are fortunate in so many ways. Count your blessings and express gratitude for all the good things in your life.

If you still find it hard to come to terms with a devastating loss, then sport psychotherapy may help you achieve these steps to moving forward positively. If that's the case, contact me at for a free consultation to see how I can support your mental health in sport and other areas of life.

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